Abrash: Facebook’s Augmented Reality Glasses Still 5 to 10 Years Away
A fortune has been poured into research yet it is still not clear when Facebook’s high-end augmented reality glasses will be built.
Facebook’s head of XR research Michael Abrash is steering the tech giant’s efforts to build augmented reality glasses. He revealed in a recent interview with The Information that Facebook’s AR glasses will take about five to ten years to develop.
Abrash’s vision is of wearable AR devices displaying data and digital images that people will voluntarily wear for several hours in a day such that they will literally become the smartphone replacement. AR will only become real when it hits the “iPhone moment”. Currently we are in the “Blackberry phase” as far as the development of AR goes.
Why are the Facebook AR Glasses Taking So Long?
According to Abrash, the cautious five to ten-year timeline for the development of the Facebook AR glasses reflects the various technical breakthroughs that must happen in the industry before the mainstream public will be willing and ready to wear AR glasses on their faces on a regular basis. These range from breakthroughs in batteries to the user interfaces. Additional parameters that will have to be met include high added value through the app ecosystem, great wearing comfort as well as a high display quality. Facebook faces the challenge of integrating these technological demands into the slim face of a computer that has to be worn on the face. The glasses will therefore materialize only when these challenges have been met.
Augmented Reality is Ten Years Away from the “iPhone Moment”
Abrash says AR will only go mainstream and hit the “iPhone moment” when a cocktail of parameters have been met. For example, the AR displays will have to meet the weight limits for them to hit a comfort level where users will be able to wear them all day. They must satisfy the form factor requirements and they must also meet the thermal requirements. We must also have excellent tracking that will be perfect in all circumstances and which will be more than just a tracking system but one that is able to understand the user’s context.
Before these are met, AR will be similar to the pre-iPhone days when we had the Blackberrys and PDAs but they weren’t quite the thing until the iPhones and Co. came along.
This does not necessarily mean that no data glasses will be rolling into the market between now and then. There will be but they won’t be quite the thing. Their impact will be comparable to the Blackberry era in the mobile world before the iPhones and the Samsung Galaxys came along. According to Abrash, the augmented reality’s “iPhone moment” will happen in about a decade and he “would be surprised” if it happened sooner, say in five years.
There are data glasses that are already in the market such as the North Focals but Abrash does not consider these as full AR. Facebook is also reportedly working on its smartphone data glasses that could arrive sooner than Abrash’s ten-year timeline for the appearance of the “real” AR moment.
It Will Take a Whole Community
Abrash believes that the obstacles that are currently blocking the mainstreaming of AR technology require the efforts of the whole community to solve. Facebook is already doing various academic collaborations with various partners. Abrash expects the AR industry to pan out just like the computing industry where no single company monopolizes everything and keeps it to themselves. Different players will fill in the spaces to create the vibrant AR ecosystem which Abrash describes as the “wave of the future”.
Abrash says his current role is to develop the “substrate” or the underlying technology that will unlock the potential of the technology to millions of people and he doesn’t think much about what form the product might eventually take.
Facebook’s AR Glasses Still in Incubation Phase
In the interview with The Information, Abrash noted that much of the work is still in research and much of it in product and that overall, Facebook’s augmented reality glasses project is still in incubation.
AR Will Replace the Phone
Abrash believes Facebook will usher in VR 2.0. When the next-generation of virtual reality happens, it will be largely due to Facebook efforts. According to Abrash, AR will someday replace the phone and VR will replace the personal computer.
Augmented Reality Interface Modeled on the Brain
According to Abrash, how we will interact with AR will be quite different with how we interact with some of the common devices today such as smartphones and personal computers. The biggest challenge in the development of augmented reality glasses will be how to create the appropriate AR interfaces that will be multimodal, supporting various modes.
The ideal AR interface in the long run will be one that will be capable of working the way the human brain works with its perceptions. These AR glasses will, for example, be able to detect noisy environments, infer the people one is chatting with and amplify their voices. It will be performing these functions without the wearer even noticing.